Why has the cost of a public college and university education skyrocketed ahead of inflation for the last decade?
Just as national security is the prime responsibility of the federal government, education is the major responsibility of state. K-12 education takes up 51 cents of every tax dollar. Public higher education also gets a small portion of tax dollars. In the 1980s, Kansas paid about two dollars for every dollar a Kansas student paid in tuition in post-secondary education. Today, the most recent figure I have seen was 93 cents for every student dollar although with the recent 3 percent rescission, that will be a little lower.
Based on instructional costs, Kansas per student support is now about half of what it was in the 1980s. The reason is simple: the number of students attending tertiary institutions has nearly doubled. In the 1980s, slightly over 40 percent of Kansas high school graduates went to college. Today, it is nearly twice that rate.
The problem is not just state funding. Far too many non-college-able students are occupying college seats. Many Kansas high schools are guilty of inflating grades and shaming any student who does not go on to college. Too many schools drape their hallways with placards proclaiming how every student is college bound. Indeed, even the Kansas Department of Education’s new Kansas CAN initiative labels a student who intends to graduate from high school and work on his family’s farm as a failure.
Kansas needs farmers, auto mechanics, plumbers, etc. Some students would prefer these vocations. And in many cases, they will make more money than a college graduate.
But the inflation of expectations is not limited to Kansas. Nationwide, the high school graduation rate has gone from 70 percent to over 81 percent in just the last decade! This academic miracle fades away when we realize that student academic achievement measured on the NAEP, SAT, etc. has gone down, not up. Simply, at more and more high schools, it is becoming nearly impossible to flunk out as long as the student remains breathing. As a result, more marginal high school “graduates” are entering college.
Another major increased cost is technology. Blackboards, overhead and carousel projectors have been replaced with equipment that costs ten times more and becomes obsolescent in a very short time. Dismissed as a necessary cost, the “refreshing” of digital equipment every 3-4 years and continuous migration to new software involves huge costs in technical personnel, equipment and staff retraining.
Publishing companies engage in a legal racket that has driven up the costs of textbooks over the last decade. A textbook that should cost $40 in print has risen to over $200 to support all of the digital ancillaries and hired tutors that come as book services. Convince the professor to adopt it and the students have to buy it.
Most of the cost of education is in salaries. But over the last four decades, we have seen administrative glut. Much of this is driven by the need to generate useless paperwork to “prove” that the schools are meeting requirements of government and accrediting agencies. Most of this documentation fails to discern the quality programs from the diploma-mills. However, until statutory regulations mandating over-reporting are repealed, administrative glut will continue to grow.
Colleges are now viewing students as customers. “Marketing” is now “Job One.” Marketing diverts money away from providing education. Unfortunately, when a large number of students are more concerned with having ultra-modern dormitories and other facilities or they will go elsewhere, an administration has to put money into “looking good” that can erode “being good.”
The high cost of a public college education can be brought down: if public schools stop telling students that they are a failure if they don’t go on to college, if technology is driven by what teachers need rather than what administrators want to brag about, if publishers listen to students who say they overwhelmingly prefer printed text, if unnecessary regulations and paperwork are repealed and administration is reduced, if public colleges cut their marketing, and if students look for quality over pretty looks.
That would probably shrink our college population to 60 percent of current enrollments.